Ghulam Mohammad Nengroo alias Mum Nengroo, had never imagined that he would one day be denied the right to bury members of his family in his own village. But that was exactly what happened to him this year when the land around his hamlet of Nengroo Basti was fenced by the J&K Soil Conservation Department, forcing him to bury his brother Ghulam Ahmad Nengroo and another relative, Mala Begum, on the premises of a small mosque instead.
The Nengroo family are forest-dwellers who fall under other traditional forest dwellers category (OTFD) as per Forest Rights Act- 2006 (FRA). Their way of life had remained reasonably undisturbed for centuries. But since October 31, 2019, when the Union government extended to J&K the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006, a progressive piece of legislation that ensures the land tenure, food security and livelihoods of traditional forest dwellers, the majority of communities like that of the Nengroos have actually been treated more harshly than they ever had been before. The forest officials (soil conservation wing) have fenced off the entire habitation a few years back and the more than one dozen families living in this hamlet are not even allowed to bury their loved ones here.
The 15 families who live in Nengroo Basti did not encroach on this land but had been shifted here by the state government in 2007 after landslides destroyed their land and houses in their ancestral village Sani Darwan located a few kms away. If the Govt provided them 7 marla plots outside the village why few kanals of land was not allocated for a graveyard? This is not rehabilitation or resettlement. These people have grown up in the forests around Darwan and Yusmarg and today they are called encroachers and have been jailed in their basti. This is unacceptable.
No Forest Rights
“We were told on radio and TV programmes by government officers that the FRA would entitle us to several rights, including the right to have a graveyard in our village and the right to acquire land for a school and health center. But this seems to be a distant dream for the people living in this remote place,” said Ali Mohammad (name changed) while interacting with me. Not only has the rollout of the FRA not provided the nomadic communities with the Act’s promised benefits, but its extension to J&K has actually made life more difficult for them because the staff of the Forest Department appear to feel that the legislation challenges their authority.
For the last couple of years, the forest department has rigorously fenced many forest areas in the union territory. People living in villages near forest areas allege that state-owned land and even grazing land (khahcharai) is being fenced by the forest department. Last year in Kanidajan village, six km from Nengroo Basti, forest officials axed 8,000 apple trees which they claimed had been grown on forest land. This was reported on several national and international media platforms, including the BBC. Even if that was encroachment , the Forest Officials had to follow the due process as per Forest Rights Act 2006, which they didn’t.
The forest department was not so harsh with forest dwellers before the rollout of the Forest Rights Act (FRA). The Forest Department is under the misconception that the FRA will let people take control of forest land. Thus the forest officers are directing their staff on the ground to ensure that there is no encroachment of land. The intentions of some forest officers may be good as a lot of timber smuggling has taken place in Pir Panjal forest division in the last several decades.
Whatever the intentions of the officials, they are having a negative impact on the ground. In a migratory habitat near Yusmarg locally called Darwan Basti, the locals told me this summer that they are not even allowed to grow vegetables for the last 2 summer seasons during their annual migration. Many are not allowed to collect timber from the forests to repair their damaged kothas (huts). That is another issue which isn’t being addressed.
FRA & Forest Conservation
The Forest Rights Act can be used for forest conservation, the forest officials don’t seem to know that. Section 5 of the FRA 2006 empowers the gram sabha (village council) to protect the wildlife, forest, and biodiversity of the village and ensure that adjoining catchment areas, water sources, and other ecologically sensitive areas are adequately protected. But there is no awareness about this and we are trying our bit in this direction
For the last couple of years, the forest department has rigorously fenced many forest areas in the union territory. People living in Nengroo Basti Darwan allege that the Soil Conservation Department had fenced state-owned land and even grazing land (khahcharai) is being fenced by the forest department. The residents worry about the graveyard that the FRA ought to have given them but which the Forest Department has taken away.
The families who reside in Nengroo Basti actually hail from Sani Darwan village, two km away. After massive landslides hit Sani Darwan in 2007, completely destroying the homes and land of 15 families, the government settled these families on a patch of land between Sani Darwan and Chalyan villages. This place later came to be known as Nengroo Basti because most of the families have Nengroo as their surnames. The land in Nengroo Basti falls under the territorial jurisdiction of Darwan village, which itself is divided into two habitations, Sani Darwan and Wagen Darwan.
While the families did select and use a patch of forest land as a graveyard, burying several children there who had died in the village five to six years ago, the Forest Department came down on them harshly when the FRA was rolled out in J&K and has disallowed the use of that piece of land since then.
When J&K’s Lt Governor Manoj Sinha gave a speech for a programme titled ‘Agenda’ organized by the India Today media group, he said in the beginning of his address that the Forest Rights Act had given the people of J&K new hope. But on the ground the law is not being implemented. People have no awareness about the act and hardly any Community Forest Rights (CFR) claim forms have been filed by people entitling them to get land for graveyard, school, community centre or a school.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.